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A Sweet Potato Mystery

Ochen Kaylan

Larger view
Purple yam - a true yam that lives up to its name
(Zoe Francois)

As Thanksgiving approaches, we approach a mystery of the produce aisle. The truth is, most of us have never seen a yam. The yams in the market are actually sweet potatoes, but a different kind of sweet potato than the vegetable next to it labeled a sweet potato. It's kind of confusing. Weekend America's Ochen Kaylan helps us sort it out.

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Ochen Kaylan: I was hanging out with my buddy Pete the other day.

Pete Thomas: My name is Pete Thomas, and I work in a grocery store in the produce department.

Ochen: And he started telling me about stress he sees in the produce aisle on Thanksgiving. And it's usually some guy -

Pete: And when that husband comes in, knowing that his football starts at noon, and he's got a list that says "sweet potatoes" on it, he'd better not go home with a yam, because no football for him.

Ochen: It's not just husbands. This might be your first Thanksgiving with the in-laws, or you might be trying to help out, but you don't want to screw things up. And Pete says this worry reaches its apex in front of the sweet potatoes and yams.

Pete: The box they come in says "yam." The sign that we put out says "yams." But they are sweet potatoes, and the only people that we have to talk off the ledge, as it is, are people that say, "Where are the sweet potatoes?" You point to the sign that says yams and you say, "Those are sweet potatoes." They go, "No, they're not." "Yes, they are. "

Ochen: So apparently sweet potatoes and yams are the same thing. But at Pete's store, they carry four different kinds of sweet potatoes.

Pete: A garnet, a jewel, sometimes Japanese, and then we also carry something that's called a Jersey sweet.

Ochen: So there are different varieties of sweet potatoes, some of them called yams--but that's wrong--and different stores call different ones different things. And if that weren't confusing enough, there's this whole other vegetable that's actually a yam - a real yam - and it's called: a yam.

Jessica Harris: A true sweet potato and a true yam are different, completely different botanically. They are different genus, different species.

Ochen: That's Jessica B. Harris. She's a cookbook author, food historian. She knows about true yams.

Jessica: They tend to have a brown skin, almost like a white or Irish potato. And in some cases, may be fibrous on the outside. Their taste is more like the taste of a potato than of a sweet potato.

Ochen: Can you buy a true yams?

Jessica: Oh, absolutely, but the thing is, you buy them at Hispanic markets where they're called nami.

Ochen: OK. I've got to keep this straight. So what Pete sells me is a sweet potato, no matter what he calls it. Down the street at the mercado, if it's called a yam, it might be a true yam, or it might be a sweet potato. Who knows? So somewhere, some weird switch-up happened, and Jessica Harris says it started with the slave trade.

Jessica: One of the things that we don't really think about is that kind of forced movement of masses and masses and masses, virtually unthinkable numbers of people, also necessitated feeding them, and so provisioning the slave trips was a big deal. They left with certain kinds of provisions from Europe, but they also provisioned themselves on the African coasts, and one of the things they were provisioned with were yams.

Ochen: When Africans arrived, they looked for yams.

Jessica: There weren't any. But there was this other thing: a sweet potato.

Ochen: Whites called them sweet potatoes, African Americans called them yams. Cultures get blended. Three centuries later, we're dumbfounded in the produce aisle. So which one do I get for Thanksgiving? I still don't get that one, so I called up author and chef Zoe Francois. We went to a few markets, picked up anything called a yam or sweet potato, and headed back to the kitchen to sort it out.

Zoe Francois: We have garnet yams and jewel yams, which both of those are actually sweet potatoes, and that's what most Americans will find in the grocery store. Then we have this giant, it's called a comote. This one's from Mexico. Then the two that are real yams: the purple yam that we found at the Asian market and the yampi yampi.

Ochen: We cooked them as simply as we could, just washed them, pricked the skins, and baked them, so that what we were tasting was just sweet potato and yam. So first: sweet potatoes.

Zoe: Let's cut into it and see what the flesh looks like. It has this sort of yellow-tan flesh to it. What do you think?

Ochen: It was fine. The thing is, I've never had a sweet potato before, so for me, this was new. It tasted like a potato except sweet. We tried the rest of the sweet potatoes. Then we tried the true yams.

Zoe: It's really sweet.

Ochen: They all had their own distinct taste.

Zoe: Hmm. That's interesting.

Ochen: But here's the thing: Zoe baked two different deserts with three different kinds sweet potatoes and true yams, and they all tasted the same. They were great, but I couldn't taste the difference between them.

Zoe: Once I added the cream and ginger, and I didn't even add that much spice to them because I wanted the flavor to come through. Even then, I just can't taste the difference.

Ochen: So I asked Zoe what should people do in the produce aisle when they're forced with that decision.

Zoe: I think if people are stressed out about which potato to get, they really just should relax and enjoy their Thanksgiving. I don't think it's going to make a difference.

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    By Gary Lorence

    From Union, NE, 08/25/2011

    2010 I planted 4 varieties in NE
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    By ngan nguyen

    From AL, 12/28/2009

    Our next experiment was to bake the different “yams,” sweet potatoes and real yams in a recipe. I was curious if the differences we detected in the plain baked version would hold true in a dish with other flavors competing with it.
    __________________
    tuyen dung | tim viec | viec lam

    By ngan nguyen

    From AL, 12/28/2009

    Our next experiment was to bake the different “yams,” sweet potatoes and real yams in a recipe. I was curious if the differences we detected in the plain baked version would hold true in a dish with other flavors competing with it.
    __________________
    tuyen dung | tim viec | viec lam

    By Anna Bannanna

    From Tucson, AZ, 11/23/2009

    Wow, this is news to me. We grew up calling the brownish, um, tuber (thanks wikipedia) with the orange flesh "sweet potatoes", and then, not too long ago, we were corrected and told that sweet potatoes were the tubers with the pale, cream-colored flesh, and what we were eating were yams. (We still kept eating them, though! They should be called yums! Hehe.) I think everyone now knows there's a common mistake people make about yams and sweet potatoes, but are more often than not mistaken about what the mistake is. Thanks, Ochen and friends! Happy thanksgiving! --Annie

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